MONROE, New York — When the Town of Monroe voted to allow Kiryas Joel, a densely populated Satmar Hasidic village located 55 miles from New York City to annex 164 acres of its land to alleviate a housing shortage, it wasn’t a surprise. But neither was the Orange County Legislature’s reaction: to join nine municipalities in a lawsuit against the annexation.
“The Village of Kiryas Joel is filled with good people living their lives, but for the past several years their government has been ignoring how things are done in New York State. That was a real tipping point,” said Orange County executive Steven M. Neuhaus.
Among the contentious practices performed in Kiryas Joel includes attempts at sex segregation in public playgrounds and sidewalks, and an alleged widespread $40 million in Medicaid fraud among the village’s residents. For Neuhaus there are also additional concerns involved in the annexation.
“We’re concerned about the impact an annexation of 164 acres, zoned for single family use, could have, because if it’s annexed it will be rezoned to high density housing for 1900 units. And where would all the extra sewer lines and water come from? Who is going to pay for that?” asked Neuhaus.
More than a property dispute, the annexation and subsequent legal challenge tells a story of diametrically opposed communities trying to preserve their ways of life. Add to the need to balance conservation against development, charges of government obfuscation and anti-Semitism, and one gets a sense of the delicate situation in this Hudson Valley locale.
‘Finally, I thought, there would be a Jewish community, a place to buy kosher food. Instead it has come to be a terrible, terrible curse’
“I’m Jewish, and so my problem with them has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. In fact I was here when Kiryas Joel first started and my first feeling was one of such joy and happiness,” said Rochelle Marshall, who has lived in Monroe for 50 years. “Finally, I thought, there would be a Jewish community, a place to buy kosher food. Instead it has come to be a terrible, terrible curse.”
The seeds for the dispute date back to the late 1970s when the Grand Rabbi of Satmar, Joel Teitelbaum founded Kiryas Joel, or KJ. Today about 22,000 people reside in the insular community, which to outsiders resembles a European shtetl. Women don’t drive and other than their immediate family members, they don’t socialize with men.
And, as is the norm in an ultra-Orthodox community, young people marry between the ages 18 and 19 and have between six to 10 children. This high birth rate means about 200 new housing units must be built annually for a population in which some 21% require public assistance.
If Kiryas Joel continues on its current trajectory there will be 42,497 residents by 2025, and 96,000 by 2040, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Population Estimates Program. From Kiryas Joel’s perspective, protecting and nurturing their way of life means vastly increasing the size of their village.
“In addition to meeting the needs of a growing population, the Village hopes to draw up plans for a number of new initiatives that go beyond its efforts to keep up with growth. This growth spells concomitant expansion of the communities infrastructure, including water, sewer, roads, sidewalks, streetlights, and transportation,” according to KJVoice.com, a news source which was created “to assist the community in transmitting its message and dispelling the myths that surround Kiryas Joel,” according to the website.
One of those myths is that Kiryas Joel initiated the annexation. That’s simply not true, said Josh Poupore, Senior Vice President for Corning Place Communications, which represents Kiryas Joel.
‘The homeowners living on the 164 acres [up for annexation] petitioned the village for annexation’
“The homeowners living on the 164 acres [up for annexation] petitioned the village for annexation,” Poupore said. “They want to become part of KJ. They want to get sidewalks, and sewer lines, and streetlights. Although public safety officers and a volunteer fire department exist in Monroe, English is not the first language of many of the Hasidic residents. But if they were to call the KJ Fire dispatcher, he speaks Yiddish. Those kinds of cultural things are very important.”
Orange Country’s Neuhaus said the issue of a language barrier for the people living in the 164-acre area is groundless. There’s no reason they need be annexed in order to get Yiddish speaking emergency personnel. The Hassidic residents living there could simply work out a mutual assistance agreement between the respective emergency services, he said.
On the other hand for the more than 22,000 residents of Monroe, annexation means even more high density housing on land originally zoned for single family homes, increased congestion, lower property values, and undo stress on the environment.
As these residents, and neighboring communities see it, preserving their way of life means ensuring expansion happens methodically and in keeping with existing zoning laws.
Leading the charge against annexation stands the non-partisan United Monroe, an all-volunteer grass roots organization created in 2013.
“I’m a progressive liberal who moved here eight years ago. I knew about KJ, and I thought it would be great to expose my kids to different cultures,” Emily Convers, United Monroe’s director, said, adding that annexation wasn’t something anyone anticipated at the time.
Then about two years ago Kiryas Joel publicized its intention to expand by either 507 acres or 164 acres. It submitted both petitions to the Town of Monroe whose three-member council rejected the first one, but approved the latter.
‘They seem to think they can just build it and worry about the permits and the legal stuff later on’
It also announced plans to tap into New York City’s water supply to guarantee future growth and set about constructing a 13.5-mile pipeline so it could send water to future homes in the area. Kiryas Joel is waiting for the requisite permits to draw water from the city’s aqueduct.
“They started to build the pipeline without the proper review or permit. The County isn’t allowing them to build it,” said Rich Cannava, co-founder of Preserve Hudson Valley, a non-profit environmental group that also plans to mount a legal challenge to annexation. “They seem to think they can just build it and worry about the permits and the legal stuff later on.”
Poupore, Kiryas Joel’s spokesperson, said the village has taken posted documents relating to environmental review online.
“They have followed everything to the letter of the law and they’re not required to open its meetings,” he said.
Not true, said Orange County’s Neuhaus. Like every municipality in the state of New York meeting and minutes of meetings are public information and must be accessible.
“They have a lot of work to do regarding open government. They need to adhere to the open meetings laws,” he said.
Indeed, while Convers has visited Kiryas Joel to distribute leaflets and speak with residents, United Monroe hasn’t attended a KJ board meeting. Not for want of trying, she said.
“We’ve tried to go and look to see when they’re scheduled. We get there and the doors are locked and the lights are off,” she said.
Preserve Hudson Valley’s Cannava said it has filed several Freedom of Information Act requests with Kiryas Joel. However, as frustrated and concerned about the annexation as is, he said he’d rather it hadn’t come down to legal action.
“There’s a better way to do this. We’d love them [KJ] to come to the table. We’ve extended that olive branch,” Cannava said. “We understand they have their culture but it’s not fair to just say we will do what we need to for the betterment of our culture to the detriment of others.”
Cannava isn’t the only one championing dialogue. So does a Center for Governmental Research report that was commissioned by Orange County.
“Instead of settling these matters in the courts, Orange County leaders would better serve taxpayers by working to establish a climate in which growth can occur with the cooperation of municipal, county, regional and state agencies,” according to the report.
Nevertheless, dialogue between the two sides remains virtually nonexistent. And when public hearings in Monroe occurred they were ripe with rancor.
Even so, annexation opponents bristle at the notion that anti-Semitism is a factor in the dispute. While United Monroe’s Convers acknowledges that some social media commentary has been anti-Semitic, she said it’s small scale.
‘We’re talking about corrupt leaders who keep their citizens in the dark and that the leadership are serial violators of environmental laws’
“There are always fringe nuts who will say the stupidest things. But United Monroe is nothing about that. Nobody is doubting the beauty of the Satmar culture, nobody is arguing that they shouldn’t live their lives the way they want,” said United Monroe’s Convers. “The issues are that KJ operates under cover of darkness, we’re talking about corrupt leaders who keep their citizens in the dark and that the leadership are serial violators of environmental laws.”
As the case heads to court each side Orange County’s Neuhaus said litigation might result in something positive.
“I think one of the successes would be that Kiryas Joel gets more involved in the community. Another would be to get a roadmap to whatever expansion they are thinking of,” he said. “Both sides want to live here, they both care for their families and they have to learn to live next to each other and coexist. Far worse places in the world have done it, we can do it here.”